A Light Goes Out

Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard’s ALPHAVILLE (1965). Courtesy: Rialto Pictures

I keep returning to a transitional point in my life that followed my pituitary tumor operation and my moving to Los Angeles at the tail end of 1966 to begin the rest of my life. My hero during that period was French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, who was married to the lovely Anna Karina. In all, she acted in seven of Godard’s features, most notably Pierrot le Fou and Alphaville (both 1965).

The latter film, one of my favorites, could only be described as Science Fiction Film Noir. In it, she plays Natacha von Braun, daughter of the notorious Leonard Nosferatu (alias Professor von Braun), chief administrator of Alpha 60, the all-powerful computer that rules the city of Alphaville.

On December 14, the Danish/French film actress died of cancer in a Paris hospital. It was hard to see an actress whose loveliness I revered when I was young come to an end.

Jean-Paul Belmondo Kisses Karina in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965)

I have several of the Godard/Karina films on DVD and will probably be viewing them again in the weeks to come. Somewhere, in those almond eyes, my own past is looking back at me. The most apt expression? The lines Karina says in Alphaville:: “Joli sphinx.”

It would be nice if all the people we have loved from near or afar can continue on with us as if in a cloud around our persons. But it is not to be.


Morose Delectation

Anna Karina and Eddie Constantine in Godard’s Alphaville

I have begun my re-evaluation of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, beginning with one of my favorites, Alphaville: Une Étrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965). One thing hit me between the eyes right away: I am and have always been in love with Godard’s then wife and star Anna Karina. Those almond-shaped eyes! That beautiful face! For some reason, I had always assumed that she was Russian, probably because the similarity of her name to Anna Karenina, the Tolstoy heroine of the novel of the same name. Instead, she is Danish, born Hanne Karin Bayer.

Long one of my favorite Godard films, Alphaville lurches between two genres: the spy film and science fiction. The original Lemmy Caution was an FBI agent, the creation of a British novelist named Peter Cheyney. Between 1936 and 1945 he wrote ten novels starring Caution, all of which have him speaking a rural dialect in which and was always written as an’ and coming as comin’. I tried reading This Man Is Dangerous (1936), but gave up quickly. Godard took obvious liberties with the character and placed him in another galaxy far far away. Curiously, the French films based on the Lemmy Caution novels usually starred the same Eddie Constantine who played the role in Alphaville.

In the Alphaville of the future (which looks suspiciously like Paris circa 1965), a massive computer called Alpha 60 controls in detail the lives of all its denizens. As a homage to Orwell, Godard has a “Bible” in every room, which is none other than a dictionary of approved words. Words that are dropped out include such terms as “conscience,” ”love,” and “tenderness.”

Could This Be the Most Beautiful Face of the 1960s?

Lemmy Caution falls in love with Anna Karina (playing the role of Natasha Von Braun), whom he refers to as a beautiful sphinx (“Joli Sphinx,” which he repeats twice). Lemmy pulls the old Captain Kirk trick of talking the computer into destroying itself, and while the residents of Alphaville are stricken and dying, drives off with Anna Karina to the Outlands of Nueva York.

Sigh! I think I’ll see some more Godard films with Anna Karina in an act of what one of my old friends called “morose delectation.”



Return to Godard (After Many Years)

Jean-Luc Godard During His “Golden Age”

From my last two years at Dartmouth to my first two or three years in Los Angeles, I thought that French film director Jean-Luc Godard was the greatest living filmmaker. Since he was still under forty, I thought he had many productive years ahead of him.

When I first came to L.A., I did not drive (that came almost twenty years later). Most of his films received their Southland premieres at the Laemmle Los Feliz Theater on Vermont, a few blocks north of Hollywood Boulevard.  It was a long bus ride involving a transfer in Beverly Hills at Santa Monica and Cañon to a bus that let me off at Santa Monica and Vermont. From there, it was almost a mile to the theater. This was at a time that I was suffering from urethral strictures that made long bus rides an ordeal for me. Several times I wound up wetting myself on the way back. That is a singularly unromantic way of paying for one’s love of art.

The last Godard film I loved was Week-end (1967). Afterwards, he continued to make films, but as a dedicated Maoist and Communist Revolutionary. We all saw signs of this coming in La Chinoise (1967), but couldn’t believe he could throw away his talent for mere propaganda.

After 1970, the only new Godard film I saw was Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love), made in 2001, which I saw early this year. In the intervening years, I continued to see my Godard favorites over and over again: Le Mépris, or Contempt (1963), Pierrot le Fou (1965), and Alphaville (1966). This morning, I saw Vivre Sa Vie (1962) and became quite suddenly unblinkered.

Anna Karina Crying in a Movie Theater in Vivre Sa Vie

I always saw Godard as a free spirit, but now I realized that there was a formal excellence that I had not appreciated. The film stars his wife, the lovely Anna Karina, who in twelve tableaux turns to the world of prostitution, falling in with a pimp who shoots her in the end. Where one would expect such a film to be relatively devoid of emotion, Godard follows Karina during the stages of her fall with a delicacy showing how strongly he felt for her. The above photo is taken in a movie theatre, where she tears up while seing Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

As if my life were not complicated enough, I am now going to stage a multi-year re-evaluation of Godard’s work—if I am lucky to live so long! There really is something there. I’m glad it was not just a youthful infatuation.